June 12, 2005: Headlines: Figures: COS - Malawi: Writing - Malawi: Telegraph.co.uk: Paul Theroux says: I have led a messy life

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Paul Theroux says: I have led a messy life

Paul Theroux says: I have led a messy life

Rather than simply imagine the drug tour, Theroux wanted to know he had it right, that it was accurately experienced and rendered. "It was a rare example of my going in search of material for a novel,'' he says. "It's the only time I've ever consciously set off - OK, I'm going to subject myself, that type of thing, the sort of thing Graham Greene did all the time.''

Paul Theroux says: I have led a messy life

I have led a messy life
(Filed: 12/07/2005)

The hero of Paul Theroux's new novel is an impotent travel writer who takes mind-altering drugs for inspiration. Is he writing about himself?

''I hear he can be very cranky,'' a friend told me when I mentioned I'd be interviewing Paul Theroux. I'd heard the same, or gleaned as much from his books.

Some of his own book jacket copy describes him as "irascible'' (but "endearingly'' so); in his travel writing, he has savaged the well-meaning if simple-minded guides, drivers, hotel owners and highway companions he has encountered on no fewer than six continents.

He tells reporters their questions are "impertinent''; he regularly describes his former mentor, V.S. Naipaul, as a "w---er.'' "You'd better be prepared,'' my friend warned me.

Theroux, novelist, essayist and travel writer, has been publishing books at the rate of about one a year for the past 30 years, which means that to be truly prepared for this would require me to have read roughly one Theroux book annually since I was five.

Fortunately, Theroux, who has agreed to meet me in a hotel lobby in Boston, not far from his summer home in Cape Cod, intended to discuss one book in particular: his latest, the novel Blinding Light.

Its hero, Slade Stedman, is a famous travel writer whose life is like a thwarted version of Theroux's own: after writing one classic blockbuster, Stedman (irascible, naturally) cannot write another.

In search of inspiration, he travels to Ecuador on a drug tour, where he tries the hallucinogen ayahuasca - an experience that temporarily robs him of his sight, but sparks his creative imagination, as well as a sexual adventurousness that becomes the subject matter of his next book.

Theroux, a tall, broad-of-shoulder, clean-cut New Englander, walks into the hotel lobby wearing a white polo shirt. Only the circle of dolphin tattoos on his bare ankle hints that, at 64, he has reached his current level of respectability by means other than banking or the law.

On his wrist hangs a heavy, silver watch, the kind that looks as if it could keep perfect time several leagues beneath the sea; much like the one Theroux describes on Stedman's own wrist. "I wish I could say I liked your book,'' one reporter tells the fictional Stedman, who promptly walks out of the interview.

Stedman is a sufficiently autobiographical character for me to think it wise to start with some encouraging words about Theroux's own book. "I really enjoyed it,'' I tell him. Praise duly noted, he launches enthusiastically into the book's genesis.

"I had this great idea,'' he says. "I had double cataract surgery in 1999 and, being a writer, asking a lot of questions, I ask the doctor, what are the various things that can go wrong?'' He was told he could lose his vision altogether. "I found this traumatic.''

Theroux sits back in his chair in the lobby, his fingers intertwined on his knee, in a kind of relaxed formality. "Then I started thinking about what if I was blind, and at the back of my mind was this thought of the other sensations that you have, tactile sensations, hearing, smelling, the eroticism of it - darkness, blindfold. All of this stuff, the idea of blindness as a form of impotence - you're kind of shut off from the thing you were able to do so well.''

The writer's block, the impotence, the blindness ... was he inspired by nearing the age of 60 at about the time he started the book? Possibly, Theroux concedes diffidently. But, he adds, "I don't want to look too deeply into how I write, or why I write - I usually get an idea and work it through. I don't want to be too self-conscious about it. But one of the things I am very conscious of is the reality of the things I write about.''

Rather than simply imagine the drug tour, Theroux wanted to know he had it right, that it was accurately experienced and rendered. "It was a rare example of my going in search of material for a novel,'' he says. "It's the only time I've ever consciously set off - OK, I'm going to subject myself, that type of thing, the sort of thing Graham Greene did all the time.''

Once fully recovered from the surgery, Theroux took the drug tour, and even took the hallucinogen itself. He heard his mother's voice, he says, saw the childhood home in Medford, Massachusetts, heard telephone conversations, saw everything clearly.

And yet the travel trip, he says, was as much of an experience as the "trip'' itself: "I set out to do it, and accomplished it.''

Although he devotes pages of impassioned, imaginative writing to the enlightening experience of the drug, ultimately, according to Theroux, "it's no substitute for a good night's sleep, or even a few good hours of work''.

Theroux's strength as an observer and a writer has always stemmed from that honest impulse to debunk. Although he revels in the dusty, the colourful, the exotic, he doesn't see it through a hazy, shimmering veil of literary smoke, the mysterious, impressionistic language of, say, a Lawrence Durrell.

Originally a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, Theroux lived in Singapore, moved to London with his first wife, and regularly went on travel-writing jaunts everywhere from China to Afghanistan to the islands of the Pacific. (He now divides his time between Cape Cod and Hawaii.)

His trips - at age 60, for example, overland from Cairo to Capetown for his book Dark Star Safari - prove him risk-friendly, but his writing is never swashbuckling: when he's in danger, he's humbly afraid; when he's annoyed by dirt or delay, he's not above whining - so long as there's wit in it.

"My bed smelled, as though it had been slept in, and slept in recently, someone having crawled out a little while ago, leaving it warm and disgusting,'' he writes of one unpleasant b&b in Cardigan, Wales.

And Theroux could never be accused of being romantic, either in his perspective or his intentions. Asked why he devotes so much more creative energy to evoking the mysteries of sex, as opposed to those of love, he looks startled, as if he's going to have to break some bad news to me.

"Love doesn't last,'' he tells me. "I think that love isn't what you think it is when you're in your twenties or even thirties. I think I understand passion. Love is something else.''

In fact, he goes on to talk about the way love changes, the way it weathers, comparing it to a beautiful, weathered pipe on the building we can see through the window behind us.

Theroux, who I'd thought was focusing exclusively on the conversation, is, as usual, observing his surroundings, looking for the small detail that might come in handy, his surgically remedied eyes working overtime. Who knows, he may even have some insight into love, but what he means to say is that he doesn't want to write about it: it's not dynamic, not like a moving train, a mind-expanding drug, a spray of gunfire, a smattering of stones being thrown.

And it's highly personal. Theroux prides himself on being an explicit writer, but he is, after all, a New Englander - private, if not puritanical.

In his novels My Other Life and My Secret History, Theroux has revealed seemingly autobiographical details about his first marriage and subsequent divorce (his sons, the novelist Marcel and the television presenter Louis, are from his first marriage); but he routinely denies that those books reveal anything about him.

"I've written two books which are purportedly autobiographical,'' Theroux has said.

"But the fact is that anyone reading those two books won't know me at all.'' Nor has he written about his current (second) marriage, to a Chinese-American public relations entrepreneur he met in Hawaii, and married in 1995 (in Blinding Light, Stedman's first marriage, to a marketing entrepreneur, is a disaster).

Decidedly unlike Stedman, Theroux has no real fear of writer's block, although he admits that he consciously contemplates what creative step, at his age, comes next. "When you get to be my age - I'm not old - you start thinking about what other people did. You know, Hemingway was busy shooting himself, Fitzgerald was dead, Graham Greene was writing his autobiography, Conrad was writing his autobiography ...''

He pauses. "I really don't want to write an autobiography. I hope I never do,'' he says, looking, unblinking, through his glasses.

"It'll be reviewed by someone who says, eh, I read it, there are some good parts ... they'll give me a C-plus on my life. Here's my life, and they'll say, I liked that, I didn't like that; OK, there's your life - it won't even be a B-minus! No one would get a B. And it's a messy life ... No! I don't want to be graded on my life.''

Theroux, it turns out, is far from cranky. He is reasonably curious, patient - if inadvertently evasive - and solicitous. He is so relaxed, in fact, that when he gets up in search of a glass of water, he comes back looking wild-eyed, as if he's just missed the last plane out of Baghdad - he was supposed to have been at a reading in Brookline 15 minutes earlier, he explains, but had lost track of time.

He hurries off to find his publicist, and piles into a waiting car apologetically, looking a little too big for the front seat, yet somehow chastised, and even more boyish than usual.

A seated crowd of some 60 or so is already waiting for Theroux at the shop; a dozen or so more stand on the stairs because they've arrived too late for seats. To keep the restless natives calm as they wait, the bookshop owner has passed around a small basket of chocolates.

Theroux, whom I'd seen earlier in a philosophical mood, then slightly cowed by his timing gaffe, now takes on yet a third persona before his admiring crowd: the slightly swaggering hero, debonair, witty, expansive.

On mind-altering drugs: "Some people believe in magic potions. Do you believe in magic potions?'' he asks the crowd, conversationally, drawing them in. Beat. "Drug users do.''

Theroux on aid to Africa: "Bono says one thing, Angelina says another, Brad says another ... All these people enacting visions of themselves in which they can be saviours. The Christian evangelists do it, too. Africa is the last place where people can go and someone will listen to them.''

A young woman in a halter-neck top, sitting by the stairs, is jotting down on a napkin, in beautiful handwriting, some of the bon mots as they come along: "A good writer has no need of a journal.'' "The more you write, the more you're capable of writing.''

Someone who apparently has a particular interest in hallucinogens asks a few specific questions about the drug Theroux had tried in Ecuador: "Could you try to speak a little more ... I don't want to say mystically ... a little more poetically about the experience?''

Some people in the room groan; others hold their breath. "It's not an event like having your teeth cleaned,'' Theroux says frostily, "or an experience where you go from being here to somewhere else. And I wouldn't want to belittle the experience by trying to summarise it. Next question.''

The crowd sit back in their seats, content with that response. There he is - the irascible Theroux. But endearingly so.

When this story was posted in July 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Telegraph.co.uk

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